Summer research offers a springboard to advanced studies [MIT News]

August 16, 2023

Three graduate students forged a path to the same Picower Institute lab through participating in the MIT Summer Research Program in Biology and Neuroscience.

David Orenstein | The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory

Doctoral studies at MIT aren’t a calling for everyone, but they can be for anyone who has had opportunities to discover that science and technology research is their passion and to build the experience and skills to succeed. For Taylor Baum, Josefina Correa Menéndez, and Karla Alejandra Montejo, three graduate students in just one lab of The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, a pivotal opportunity came via the MIT Summer Research Program in Biology and Neuroscience (MSRP-Bio). When a student finds MSRP-Bio, it helps them find their future in research. 

In the program, undergraduate STEM majors from outside MIT spend the summer doing full-time research in the departments of Biology, Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS), or the Center for Brains, Minds and Machines (CBMM). They gain lab skills, mentoring, preparation for graduate school, and connections that might last a lifetime. Over the last two decades, a total of 215 students from underrepresented minority groups, who are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, first-generation or nontraditional college students, or students with disabilities have participated in research in BCS or CBMM labs.  

Like Baum, Correa Menéndez, and Montejo, the vast majority go on to pursue graduate studies, says Diversity and Outreach Coordinator Mandana Sassanfar, who runs the program. For instance, among 91 students who have worked in Picower Institute labs, 81 have completed their undergraduate studies. Of those, 46 enrolled in PhD programs at MIT or other schools such as Cornell, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton universities, and the University of California System. Another 12 have gone to medical school, another seven are in MD/PhD programs, and three have earned master’s degrees. The rest are studying as post-baccalaureates or went straight into the workforce after earning their bachelor’s degree. 

After participating in the program, Baum, Correa Menéndez, and Montejo each became graduate students in the research group of Emery N. Brown, the Edward Hood Taplin Professor of Computational Neuroscience and Medical Engineering in The Picower Institute and the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science. The lab combines statistical, computational, and experimental neuroscience methods to study how general anesthesia affects the central nervous system to ultimately improve patient care and advance understanding of the brain. Brown says the students have each been doing “off-the-scale” work, in keeping with the excellence he’s seen from MSRP BIO students over the years. For example, on Aug. 10 Baum and Correa Menéndez were honored with MathWorks Fellowships.

“I think MSRP is fantastic. Mandana does this amazing job of getting students who are quite talented to come to MIT to realize that they can move their game to the next level. They have the capacity to do it. They just need the opportunities,” Brown says. “These students live up to the expectations that you have of them. And now as graduate students, they're taking on hard problems and they're solving them.” 

Paths to PhD studies 

Pursuing a PhD is hardly a given. Many young students have never considered graduate school or specific fields of study like neuroscience or electrical engineering. But Sassanfar engages students across the country to introduce them to the opportunity MSRP-Bio provides to gain exposure, experience, and mentoring in advanced fields. Every fall, after the program’s students have returned to their undergraduate institutions, she visits schools in places as far flung as Florida, Maryland, Puerto Rico, and Texas and goes to conferences for diverse science communities such as ABRCMS and SACNAS to spread the word...

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